Feature: Biomaterials Are Transforming Medicine

MIT Scientist And Engineer Describes A New Field In An NSF Lecture

How can doctors deliver drugs in ways less invasive and more controlled than an injection? Robert S. Langer views the question as an engineering design problem. Langer, Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering at MIT, described how researchers are using biomaterials to create engineering solutions to medical problems in a lecture at the National Science Foundation's (NSF) headquarters on June 17.

Langer's lecture, "Biomaterials: From Basic Science and Engineering to Clinical Practice," focused on advances in biomaterials, a field that Langer pioneered. "Historically, materials have found their way into medicine by clinicians," he said. For the first artificial heart, doctors' search for a strong substance with flexibility led them to use polyether urethane, found in girdles. "I thought we could do better," said Langer. After all, "something designed as a lady's girdle might not be the best thing to put in a human body."

Since Langer began his work in 1974, genetic engineering has made possible larger and larger "macromolecule" drugs, such as growth hormones. With the help of NSF grants, Langer found that certain hydrophobic polymers made it possible to deliver macromolecular drugs like albumin into the body and at a controlled rate over a period of time.

Since then, biomaterials have enabled the slow release of ever-larger bioengineered proteins into the body, with release times ranging from one day to more than three years. Products like Lupron Depot permit controlled release of medicines that would normally deteriorate in minutes to be released slowly over four months.

"I'd like to think these are the tip of the iceberg," said Langer. Researchers are also working on ways to deliver growth hormones and methods to provide a constant release of insulin for diabetics. Fortune magazine c

Contact: Greg Lester
National Science Foundation

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